It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Food, food, food

I love food.

I like cooking. I like eating. I love just about everything about food. I love the smells that fill my home as I cook, making it warm and welcoming. I love the bright colours of fruits and vegetables. I love the textures. (Well, except for the ones I hate, but texture! Important to food!) It appeals to all the senses, even as it nourishes, fuels, satiates and fills.

In my world, food is a Good Thing.

Which is why I am so dismayed to see food horribly, horribly abused in our culture. And I’m not talking here about poor quality food and edible non-food items, though I don’t think much of them.

I’m talking now about how we use food, and particularly how we use it with our children. I’ve spoken before about my experiment — now ranked as a success — in reducing the amount of snacking amongst the daycare kids. A few people had questions, based on some ubiquitous parenting wisdom. Toddlers have tiny tummies. They need to refuel more often, don’t they? And what about blood sugar? Don’t you get behavioural issues if they blood sugar dips?

My immediate answer is “I haven’t seen any of these problems in the 5 weeks we’ve been doing this.” However, much as I love the stuff, I am not a food expert, so I consulted with a couple of dietitians I know. Their response: 1. Yes, we do feed children too frequently. 2. If feeding schedules are consistent, children can learn to gauge how much to eat based on their awareness of the next food opportunity. 3. Toddlers have tiny tummies, but they also have tiny bodies. Their food needs are proportional, though you’ll likely need to make occasional temporary adjustments for growth spurts. 4. They weren’t aware off the top of their heads about studies suggesting snacking prevented behavioural outbursts due to low blood sugar. One of them did a quick search through a database and informed me that the studies which do address this issue focus on children with diabetes, not children with normal blood sugar regulation.

If breakfast includes a decent protein source, I was told, they can usually get to lunch. If breakfast is cereal and milk, toast and jam, a piece of fruit? There’s probably not enough protein in the splash of milk in their cereal to hold them, and the rest is pretty much all carbs. Quick energy, but not lasting energy. Kids who have a high-carb, low-protein breakfast will crash before lunch. So. Put peanut butter on that toast. Fry up an egg. Put ground almonds on the cereal. Give them firm tofu cut into fingers to dip in some yogurt. Give them an ounce of cheese. That punch of protein can make all the difference.

So that’s the input from the professionals.

But mostly? Everywhere I go, I see, snacking is used as a distractor and a bribe. A child is teetering on the brink of an outburst, getting to the point where they’re going to need some firm and focussed parental attention to move them past the rising likelihood of bad behaviour … and we hand them a container of Cheerios. “His blood sugar’s crashing,” we say.

And I wonder. Is it?

There are many things that affect a toddler’s behaviour. Sleep is a huge one. Get enough sleep into them, and their behaviour is exponentially better. Boredom. If they’re bored, they get fractious. Impatience. They hate having to wait for anything, at any time. Illness. Teething. Physical discomfort — they’re too hot, too cold, itchy. Their age. The fact that they’re two just means a certain baselines contrariness. And yes, sometimes hunger. Their behaviour does deteriorate when they’re hungry. But they are not hungry nearly as often as we feed them.

Feeding is used to distract.
To appease.
To divert.
To comfort.
To reward.
To praise.
To soothe.

I would argue that it is used for those things more often than it is used to actually nourish a body or satiate a hunger.

He’s cranky?
Feed him.
She’s doesn’t want to wait in line at the bank?
Feed her.
The siblings are squabbling?
Feed them.
You want to talk on the phone for five more minutes?
Feed them.

What are you using food for in those instances? It’s a sedative. A quick fix for an inconvenient situation. There are other fixes: a special toy that’s only used for these occasions. Crayons. Little cars. Sticker books. Sing a song. Play a clapping game. Or simply a level glance and a firm, “I know you’re bored, but you can wait quietly for another five minutes.”

Did I do any of those food-inappropriate things when my children were little? Of course I did. I did it without even thinking about it. In fact, packing that well-stocked diaper bag with the Cheerios and the apple slices made me feel not just prepared, but competent — a better parent! That, however, was 20 years ago. I’ve been tending toddlers for a long, long time, and have had more time to think about these things than most people ever get (or want to!). These days, I don’t pack snacks at all. Water bottles, yes (and for the littles, milk bottles). Snacks? No. With five children.

Now, when you go out, and you pack snacks, I’m not suggesting you kill yourself with guilt over it. No one achieves parental perfection every moment of every day, and somehow, children all over the globe live to grow into healthy, happy, functional adults despite having suffered fallible parents. Popping food into your kid for some reason other than nutrition every so often is not going to damage them. Once in a while, no harm done.

But. As a daily event? Even several times a day? It sets the child up for a bad relationship with food. Where food isn’t enjoyed for its wonderful satiating quality. It isn’t enjoyed because it looks, smells, and tastes sooooo good, even as it nourishes and fills. No. Food is consumed, mindlessly, because I’m bored, sad, tired, discouraged… or happy, content, proud of myself. Food becomes associated with activities that don’t need to have anything to do with eating: watching television, reading, sitting in the car, travelling, walking…

Food becomes quite detached from its primary purpose: nourishment. We need to stop doing this. We need to stop using food as a drug, and start savouring it as food.

Feed your children less often.
Enjoy your food more.

February 27, 2013 - Posted by | controversy, food, health and safety, parenting | , ,


  1. I’m a new SAHM of a nearly three year old, and we recently dropped the morning snack with no negative repercussions whatsoever. Why was I doing morning snack in the first place? Because his daycare did 2 snacks/day, and we figured that was what we were “supposed” to do! In their case, I suspect it’s because some of the kids sleep pretty late and either get no breakfast or a small one on the ride in, and they want to be sure everyone’s reasonably well fed out of the gate. My son eats a huge breakfast every morning, so he can make it the ~4 hours to lunch with no problem. Afternoon snacks still seem worthwhile because even I have problems making it from 12-6 without a little something to eat, so we’re keeping that for now. Thanks for this thought-provoking series of posts!

    Comment by HeatherS | February 27, 2013 | Reply

  2. I never had snacks as a child and it didn’t occur to me to give them to my children when they were little. I have noticed with my grandchildren that sometimes, if we’re out and it’s near a mealtime, they do suddenly get tired and cranky and a few raisins or some pre-packed bread and Marmite fills the gap. If we’re at home, a bowl of raw vegetables keeps them going while I or a parent gets the main course ready, a bit early if the child is particularly hungry.

    There have been times in the past when I’ve had a mid-morning biscuit with my coffee. I gave it up. I was getting fat.

    Comment by Z | February 27, 2013 | Reply

  3. I’m a big believer in sleep. It seems that a bunch of kids today just dont get enough of it. Up late, woken up to get where they have to get to, then naps shortened because maybe they will sleep through the night. I think the more a kid sleeps the better they will. Of course, sleep is becoming my favorite pastime so I may be biased.

    Comment by Kathy | February 27, 2013 | Reply

  4. I *just* looked this up yesterday, because I was curious – and get this. In Nova Scotia, the provincial regulatory guidelines for daycares MANDATE two snacks plus lunch, every day, for kids 18 months to 5 years. And each snack must include two of the four food groups at a minimum.

    So there you go – it’s entrenched in the system now, and I would imagine it’s the same or similar across the country. I know when I explained to my parents that I was cutting the morning snack, I got some pushback from one in particular – she’s a BIG believer in feeding kids every two hours whether they need it or not. She keeps snacks in the car to pacify her two kids on the drive home. They live less than 5 minutes away.

    So – it’s a process. But I think as non-snackers we are definitely outliers, and I’m actually kind of surprised we haven’t had more criticism on this whole stance. *bracing myself*

    Comment by Hannah | February 27, 2013 | Reply

  5. Love this!!! Although I’m a little more hard core….don’t put peanut butter on the toast, eliminate the toast! Don’t put almonds on the cereal, ditch the cereal! I don’t like the place that cereal and bread have cemented in our culture as a necessity. I do still feed my kids gluten free oats a couple of times a week (with raw milk and a huge hunk of butter!), but the other days it’s bacon and eggs or yogurt and fruit. And I’ve been trying to cut back on snacking. Working full time means I don’t have to worry about that very often, though. And I’m with Hannah, it is a process, and one that I’ve been working on for a year so far. We are still working on it!

    Comment by Meesha | February 27, 2013 | Reply

  6. I don’t know whether my parents fed me snacks as a pacifier when I was little – I don’t remember, but I doubt they did. Whether or not they did, Adult Me is struggling to cut out the boredom-eating. I’ve discovered that I wasn’t eating enough lunch to get me through til dinner, so instead of my mid-afternoon snack (usually unhealthy) I’ve just increased the amount of lunch. Personally I seem to need more carbs for breakfast than protein, I’m not sure why that is but the days when I have scrambled eggs on toast I get hungrier than when I have cereal with milk. Cereal is basically the standard breakfast in the UK, I never had a cooked breakfast until I was old enough to make it myself.

    Comment by May | February 27, 2013 | Reply

  7. Great post! I think this is all SO true.

    This morning, my husband was trying to keep the little guys quiet and was astonished to find out that I don’t give time a morning snack. No, not even the 16 month old. In fact, they usually don’t get an afternoon snack either, other than the occasional bits of fruit. They can eat as much or more than I do for breakfast, so I’m pretty sure they can make it to lunch just fine.

    Comment by rosie_kate | February 27, 2013 | Reply

  8. I really agree with this. I remember as a young person being allowed to graze and now as a child educator I can see how that can set up small humans for strange feelings around food. Great post! I’ve just started writing about my own experiences and thoughts as a carer/educator so blog posts like this one are really inspiring. Thankyou.

    Comment by smallwildthings | March 7, 2013 | Reply

  9. […] child management? Nope. There is a time to bend those principles. It`s called compromising with reality, or knowing your tolerances. My tolerances a bit low today. […]

    Pingback by Baby, Won’t You Drive my Carbs? « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | April 11, 2013 | Reply

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